Book price war: Thanksgiving skirmish or Armageddon?

War has broken out in the book retailing world. First, Wal-Mart last week said it would offer preorders of 10 top books to be released in November for $10 each online with free shipping. Amazon, of course, jumped in to match the price. That prompted a retaliatory strike by Wal-Mart, which lowered the price to $9. The battle erupted into a three front war when Target jumped in at $ $8.99 and Wal-Mart has since lowered its price to $8.98.

So what does this spell for the book industry? It depends on who you listen to. Some contend this is just an effort by Wal-Mart, and now by Target, to attempt to drive book purchase traffic to their web sites with the forthcoming holiday season. Others aren’t so sure.

For example, MobyLives, the blog of Melville House Publishing, calls it “capitalism run amok, a race toward an Armageddon[.]” In addition to pointing out that this artificially dictates what a business can charge for its products, Moby makes the astute observation that this mere means a book is “reduced to a thing of no inherent actual quality, just a price.”

That’s a point also made in a NYT article on the subject when Wal-Mart announced the price cuts. “If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s [new novel] for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?,” Grisham’s agent told the paper. “I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.”

We’re all looking for a deal. I admit I tend to buy as many books online as locally because the price is better. I also tend to buy more from the B&N chain store than local independents because of both the variety of selection and price. These actions unquestionably hurt independent and local bookstores. The impact on publishers may be a bit different because, at least to my understanding, these discounts probably come from the retailer’s share, not what the publisher charges the retailer.

But, to use a cliche, maybe we’re seeing some of the chickens coming home to roost. Like other consumers, readers have apparently shown that price is important. If behemoth big box retailers insist they will sell books at only a certain price point, does their market power allow tremendous influence on what publishers can charge? If so, where does that leave authors, particularly those who aren’t household names?

The 10 books offered by Wal-Mart have “list” prices of $22 to $35 so it’s a helluva discount. Actually, there’s maybe one book out of the 10 I would consider reading and even that one I would most likely wait until it was out in paperback or get from the library. Still, there are plenty of people who are interested in them and best sellers account for a fair share of the market (hence, I suppose, the term “best seller”). But you aren’t going to see the Wal-Marts of the world giving Melville House’s Every Man Dies Alone — one of my favorite books this year — this type of discount. How, then, is quality literature to compete in the marketplace? If it can’t, how can Melville House and other publishers continue to afford to publish these books?

There’s no easy solution. You can’t really blame consumers for looking for the best price, whether it’s books or detergent. But there is far more interchangeability with the latter. If Wal-Mart and Target have a price war over detergent, the societal impact is negligible and there remains a relatively objective basis by which to judge the products. But to reduce the number of books (or movies) or which ones are distributed because of price rather than content runs counter to the core concept of creativity.

The book price wars probably don’t mean the end of book publishing as we know it. Still, it never bodes well to start treating a part of the humanities as just another fungible commodity.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world[.]

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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